Avoid Excessive Tax Bills

In my work as a VITA volunteer, AND in my personal life, I’ve run across a larger-than-usual number of people this year whose tax returns left them with a need to pay extra to the IRS for 2021.

  • When it’s a small amount, it’s no big deal — in fact, some folks see that as the ideal situation. They’d prefer to owe Uncle Sam a little at the end of the year, rather than getting a big refund, which essentially means they have given a no-interest loan to Uncle Sam during the year.
  • But when people owe a large amount of income tax when they file, that means something has gone wrong with the system: not enough taxes have been withheld from their income throughout the year.

To AVOID owing substantial income tax at the time you file, your best step is to check the IRS Withholding Estimator. This easy-to-use tool allows you to make sure you are having an appropriate of federal income tax taken out of each paycheck. The tool asks you to enter information about your filing status and number of dependents, and then asks you to enter information from your most recent pay stubs — both year-to-date information AND information for the current pay period. Based on this information, the tool will help you see if you are having the appropriate amount of tax withheld from your paychecks.

Why does this happen and when do I especially need the withholding estimator? Checking on your tax withholding is especially helpful in certain situations:

  • When you have income from several different sources: if you have several different part-time jobs, or a mix of retirement income and employment income, OR if you have a spouse who also has income. In these situations, none of your income sources knows how much your total income for the year is likely to be. The problem with that is that they might withhold only a small amount of tax, on the assumption that this part-time job is your only income for the year. However, when you add up all those different sources, you may be in a higher tax bracket than any one of those sources would have guessed. The withholding estimator can help make up for the fact that no one income provider knows your whole income picture.
  • When your family situation changes: you get married, or are divorced or widowed, or you add new members to your tax household. In these cases, the withholdings you have had for years may now be inappropriate for your new situation. Some of the people I’ve seen this year who have gotten unexpectedly bad news with their tax return have been new widows. This was their first year filing single, and they owed more taxes than expected, due to the smaller standard deduction that applies to single people.

The IRS withholding estimator covers only federal income tax. When it comes to state income tax, Iowa has a Withholding Calculator that may be helpful. My impression is that it may not be quite as helpful, but it is worth checking out. Another option is to talk with your tax preparer or to attempt a tax calculation for 2022 using 2021 tax forms or software, since tax rates typically do not change dramatically from one year to the next.

Penalties. It is important to be aware that the United States tax code requires that taxes be paid throughout the year, not just at the end of the year. If you end up owing TOO much at the end of the year, you may be charged a penalty for not paying enough into the system throughout the year. Most people can avoid that penalty by paying in throughout the year an amount at least as much as their tax bill for the prior year. People with incomes over $150,000/year can avoid the penalty by paying in at least 110% of what their tax bill was for the prior year.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Earned Income Credit Expansion

I took a phone call this morning from an older gentleman (over 65) who had come to have his taxes done at our VITA site last year and had been told he didn’t need to file, and probably would never need to file again. He called just to double-check that he really didn’t need to file. His situation hadn’t changed from last year, but when he told me what kind of income he has, I said, “Hey, let me check something out, and I’ll call you back.”

Here are the changes that affect this gentleman:

  • In the past, people without children were only eligible for the Earned Income Credit if they were between the ages of 25 and 65. For 2021 tax returns, the older age limit is gone completely, and the younger age limit is changed. People age 19 and over who are not enrolled in school half time can receive the EIC. Note: young adults who are former foster children OR homeless may be eligible starting at age 18.
  • The AMOUNT of the EIC for people without children is also increased dramatically for 2021 tax returns.

Spread this news!! If you know any older adults or young adults without children, make sure to tell them that if they have income earned from work, they should definitely file a tax return this year, even if they are not required to file.
I quickly prepared a fake return for the man who called me, assuming his income was about the same as last year. It came out that he would be eligible for EIC of over $1,000! I’m so GLAD he called to check – if he had not called, he would have missed out!

These changes are, at this point, temporary. We’ll need to stay tuned to see if any of them are continued. The moral of the story? It never hurts to ask!

P.S. Other changes are permanent:

  • People with investment income up to $10,000 will be eligible for the EIC – that’s an increase in the limit amount.
  • In addition, there are now some situations where a person who is “Married Filing Separately” might be eligible for the EIC – they need to be legally separated from their spouse and not living together at the end of the year OR they need to have lived apart from their spouse for the last 6 months of the year. This change only applies to people with children.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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The App Economy and Your Taxes

Like everything else, the pandemic also shifted how individuals earn income through various “side hustles.” Uber, Lyft, and other commonly used digital services took a temporary break during the shutdowns, while newer app-based options such as Robinhood (investing), Coinbase (cryptocurrency), and FanDuel (sports betting) – just to name a few – gained more and more attention. Much of that attention was focused on the ability to make money without ever leaving your couch; however, one little important detail is often left out – you will likely be responsible to pay taxes on some, or all, of that potential income. If you think you might be in that boat for 2021, then keep reading!

  • Investment and speculation apps have been significantly increasing in popularity, but the tax implications are among the least understood. The taxes are very similar whether you are dabbling in individual stocks, ETFs, or Bitcoin, with the big one being capital gains and losses. Other taxes may be due on investments that produce interest and dividends, or hold collectibles, real estate, and foreign property as the underlying asset. You may receive the proper tax forms if you use a more traditional brokerage company; however, you may be responsible for keeping track of your own cryptocurrency transactions.
  • Gambling and sports betting is not a new phenomenon; however, a recent Iowa law permitted the use of online sports betting apps without the need to visit a casino. This change increased sports betting across the state, but consumers may be unfamiliar with the tax consequences of betting on their favorite teams.

Always be sure to check with a tax professional, or contact your local VITA tax site, if you participate in the App Economy and are unsure about the tax implications!

Reminders: 1) If you have a sizable amount of income for which taxes are not withheld, you are supposed to pay quarterly installments to the IRS, and may face a penalty if you have not submitted enough tax payments throughout the year; and 2) For income earned from independent work, your earnings will be subject to self-employment tax as well as income tax.

Ryan Stuart

Ryan is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Wellbeing and an Accredited Financial Counselor®. He focuses on educating and empowering all Iowans to independently make positive financial decisions throughout their life course.

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Thanks Giving: Give Wisely and Deduct

The Thanksgiving holiday is a time to stop and really notice how much we have to be thankful for. Many people take that gratitude a step further by sharing from what we have; they take their “thanks” and turn it toward “giving” to worthy charities this time of year. The arrival of “Giving Tuesday” next week also prompts people to give.

An article from the Iowa Attorney General’s office this week (see item 5 in the article) reminds us of steps to ensure we give wisely. Careless gifts may end up in the hands of criminals OR of organizations that do not use funds wisely. One way to make sure your money is used well for the cause you care about is to give to a local organization that has a good reputation. When giving to national organizations, you can make sure they are well-managed by checking one or more of these reputable charity rating sites: BBB Wise Giving AllianceCharity NavigatorCharityWatch, and GuideStar. The article offers more suggestions as well.

Another way to give wisely is to take the tax deduction for which you are eligible! Some people may say, “I don’t give to charity just for tax purposes – I give because I care!” That’s great. But if you take the tax deduction, and it reduces your tax bill (or increases your refund), then you have MORE money to give! Now that is wise giving!

The tax code allows us to deduct (subtract) our charitable gifts from our income before the tax is calculated. The government created that deduction to encourage us to give. By taking the deduction, and potentially having more to give, we are contributing to the valuable American habit of supporting worthwhile causes. There are two ways to deduct your charitable contributions:

  1. By “Itemizing” your deductions on Schedule A of your tax return. This is great for people who have enough deductions to be higher than the “standard” deduction allowed according to family type. For a single individual, that standard deduction is $12,550; for a married couple, it’s $25,100. Your tax preparer can help you know if this is advantageous for you.
    Good news! Even if you are better off with the standard deduction, a new law lets you deduct some 2021 giving anyway!
  2. Thanks to some of the COVID-relief legislation passed in 2020 and 2021, taxpayers can take a deduction for charitable contributions in 2021 even if they don’t itemize deductions! An individual tax filer can deduct up to $300 of monetary contributions to qualifying charities; for married couples filing jointly, that figure is $600.

In the midst of your Thanksgiving celebration, I encourage you to think about any charitable giving you might want to do, and then when you make the gift(s), be sure to keep the receipt for tax purposes! Plan now for #GivingTuesday and beyond!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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New Option on the Advance Child Tax Credit Portal

Families can now easily update their mailing address in the IRS Child Tax Credit portal. This is very important for families who choose to receive their payments in the mail, rather than by direct deposit.

To use the portal, go to the IRS Child Tax Credit page and select “Manage Payments.” The portal now allows users to:

  • Change their mailing address;
  • Switch from receiving a paper check to direct deposit;
  • Change the account where their payment is direct deposited; or
  • Stop monthly payments for the rest of 2021.

If you run into challenges using the portal, our July 12 post offers a few tips. An earlier post explains what is different about the Child Tax Credit in 2021, including who is eligible for the expanded credit. If you previously were eligible, based on your income in prior years, but are no longer eligible now, you might consider opting out of the advance payments, which are being sent monthly on the 15th of each month through the end of 2021.

Log into the portal by midnight (Eastern Time) on August 30 if you want the changes to kick in for the September 15 payment. The IRS expects to add a few more functions to the Child Tax Credit portal in coming months, including the ability to:

  • Add or remove children in most situations;
  • Report a change in marital status; or
  • Report a significant change in income.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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College Students and Money: A few more things

This is the fifth and final in a series this week about financial issues faced by students in college and trade school.

The list of financial topics that are important to students and other young adults is potentially endless, so please don’t assume that I’ve covered everything this week. Whether we are age 20 or age 60, we always need to keep learning about finances, because the financial world keeps changing – and our needs keep changing too. I’m wrapping up this series with brief notes about three more issues I see as critical for students.

Organizing Important Documents. Keeping important documents in a safe place where you can find them easily if needed is a critical skill to learn. And it is important for all key documents, whether they are paper documents, or electronic documents. Examples of important documents include:

  • Financial records of all types – financial aid papers, loan papers, receipts for major payments (tuition, rent),
  • Documentation of required educational costs, because you may be eligible for tax benefits,
  • Legal contracts (e.g. lease, cell phone plan contract) and documentation of pre-existing damage in a rental unit or dorm room,
  • Tax documents, including prior-year tax returns and documents, along with current-year W-2 forms and any other income records, as well as other year-end tax forms received.

I will not pretend this is a comprehensive list. General rule: if you think it might be important, keep it, at least until you can ask someone trustworthy about it. And I don’t mean just keeping it all laying around your room. We want these documents in a safe place where you can find them. That means they should be enclosed (in a box, or an envelope, or a designated drawer), and ideally they would be sorted into groups or sections or folders so you don’t need to look through all 500 documents to find the one you need. On your computer, you need a folder for important documents, probably with several sub-folders.

Protecting Personal Information. This means never giving out key personal information (social security number, birthdate, financial account numbers, and more) without making sure the person who is asking has a good legal reason to need the information. You will generally need to give your social security number for financial accounts, formal academic records, and medical records.

Additionally, only give that information to people when you know for sure they are who they say they are. That means if you receive a phone call and the caller says they are from your bank, don’t assume it is safe. When people call you, there is no way for you to know who they really are. Instead, use the number you already have on file for your bank and call them. Make caution your middle name when it comes to key personal information.

More: What to Consider When Sharing Your Data (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)

Using Credit Cards Wisely. We could write a whole series on credit cards – and you can search the MoneyTip$ blog for other articles – but I want to focus on three main points:

  • College is an opportunity to build credit. You can do that by getting credit card and using it. College is a time when credit cards want you as a customer – later in your life, it may be more difficult to obtain credit. So go ahead and open one or two credit card accounts, avoiding cards with annual fees. Then use them. It is only by using your credit cards and paying the bills promptly that you create something extremely valuable: a solid credit history.
  • Surprise credit card bills can kick off a downward financial spiral. Therefore, keep tabs on how much you have charged to your card since the last bill. Keep a record on your phone, or on your whiteboard, or in a notebook or your checkbook – it doesn’t matter where you keep the record. Just make sure you’re prepared for the bill when it comes.
  • Credit is generally free if you pay the bill in full each month. Assuming your card has a grace period and no annual fee, you will pay no interest at all on your purchases if you pay the entire balance before the due date each month. Sure, the bill says you only need to pay $25, but as soon as you carry a balance forward to next month, you start accruing interest on every purchase you make.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? These three habits – organizing documents, protecting personal information, and using credit wisely – will dramatically reduce the number of financial “bumps in the road” you’ll experience during college and throughout the rest of your life. You’ll never regret building these helpful financial habits.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Child Tax Credit Update: Non-Filers Tool

Over the next few weeks we expect to see several updates about how to access the special 2021 Child Tax Credit described in last week’s post. Reminder of what makes the 2021 credit “special:” 1) it is bigger; 2) part of it is payable in monthly advance payments beginning in mid-July; and 3) it’s available even to people who don’t file taxes and/or who don’t have income!

Today the IRS announced a new “Non-Filer Sign-Up Tool” for those who did not and will not file in 2019 or 2020.

For most households, the IRS will base the monthly advance payments on information from 2019 or 2020 tax returns. But what about people who did not file and do not NEED to file for either 2019 or 2020? Today the IRS announced a new “Non-Filer Sign-Up Tool” to help make sure those folks receive their payments. This allows parents/guardians to enter information about the people in their household, AND to enter direct deposit information so they receive their tax credit payments speedily.

Please share this information with those who need it!!

A couple of notes:

  • If you filed a 2019 or 2020 tax return, you don’t need to take any action.
  • If you used the “non-filers tool” LAST year (2020) to receive your Economic Stimulus Payment, you don’t need to take any action.
  • In the coming weeks the IRS will be adding two more tools: 1) an interactive tool to help you find out if you are eligible for the expanded Child Tax Credit; and 2) a Child Tax Credit Update Portal, where you can add children born in 2021 or make updates that matter, including changes to your address or bank information.
  • A non-profit organization has launched a consumer-friendly informational website that may be useful at https://www.getctc.org/en. I recommend sharing it widely!

Source: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/irs-unveils-online-tool-to-help-low-income-families-register-for-monthly-child-tax-credit-payments
For more information: https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/advance-child-tax-credit-payments-in-2021

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Attention Parents! New Child Tax Credit Features

The American Rescue Plan Act, a huge federal COVID recovery bill passed in March, did more than provide for $1400 stimulus payments. One of its provisions will soon begin impacting millions of American families with children: advance payment of the expanded child tax credit. Those affected should:

  • Plan now for best use of extra funds.
  • Make a point to pay attention to IRS updates on this topic over the next several weeks.
  • Watch their mail – the IRS has begun this week to mail a general information letter to all families it believes to be eligible. In July, they will mail individualized letters specific to each household, telling what to expect.

Expanded Credit. The Child Tax Credit was formerly $2,000 per child; it was unavailable to families with no income, and the amount was limited for families with very low income. For 2021 only:

  • Families with children who will still be under age 18 at the end of the year (born after December 31 2003) are eligible for the full amount of the credit, even if they had no or low income.
  • The amount of the annual credit is increased to $3,000 for most children, and to $3,600 for children under 6 (born after Dec 31 2015).

NOTE: the expanded credit is available to families with incomes below $75,000 (single); $112,500 (head of household); or $150,000 (married-joint). Families with higher incomes will still receive the $2,000 child tax credit under the previously-existing rules.

Advance Payment. Instead of waiting until tax time next February, eligible families will begin receiving monthly advance payments for part of the Child Tax Credit. This means that beginning about July 15 through December, families will receive monthly payments from the IRS equal to $250 per child. The amount will be $300 for younger children eligible for the $3,600 credit. These advance payments will equate to half of the total tax credit; the remainder will be paid as part of the household’s tax refund next spring.

Consider focusing on family stability. Before making special purchases, families may wish to use the funds to get current and/or stay current on all household expenses (rent, utilities, child care, etc). Building a savings cushion also promotes stability: 1) providing funds in case of unexpected expenses such as car repair or appliance replacement; AND/OR 2) covering upcoming expected costs such as back-to-school, holidays, or property taxes. A savings cushion to cover extra expenses can prevent financial setbacks, promote family stability, and reduce financial stress.

Paying off debt is also a good use of extra funds, especially debts with high interest rates. HOWEVER, it is often wise to build a savings cushion even before all debt is paid off. Without that savings, every unexpected expense simply creates more debt and more stress.

Watch for Updates! The IRS will base payments on information from 2020 tax returns. If your situation changes, you will be able to let them know of changes through one or more on-line portals they will create in the near future (similar to the “Check Your Refund” portal, or the “Get My Payment” portal used for stimulus payments). The portal(s) will allow families to enter information such as: bank information for direct deposit; a new child in your household; updated mailing address. The portal will also allow you to decline the advance payments and choose to receive the entire amount with your tax refund after the year is over.

The IRS reference page for the advance child tax credit is here.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Where’s My Refund? Where’s my EIP?

I am one of several Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Field Specialists that assist families with tax preparation and e-filing. This past week, I have been receiving at least one phone call a day from individuals wanting to know where their refund is. Many tell me they have already been to the website to check their status. The only place individuals should be checking their refund status is at the IRS.gov web site. Likewise, if you are wondering about the status of your Third Economic Impact Payment (generally $1400/person), the IRS web site is your source.

IRS.gov is the only safe place to check your refund or your stimulus payment

Refund Status. There are ONLY THREE QUESTIONS that need to be answered when using the Get Your Refund Status link on the IRS.gov website: 1) The Social Security number of the person listed on the return as the FIRST NAME on the return (not the spouse); 2) Your FILING STATUS (single, married filing jointly, head of household, married filing separately, or qualifying widow(er)); and 3) the amount of your refund, which is found on line 35A of page 2 of your federal tax return.

Stimulus Payment Status. Here again, the IRS has THREE QUESTIONS, although they are different. The needed information is: 1) Your Social Security number; 2) Your date of birth; and 3) Your mailing address. The mailing address can be tricky if you have moved recently. Generally, you should enter the mailing address on the most recent tax return the IRS has processed from you. However, if you have not filed a tax return in recent years, use the mailing address on file at Social Security or the Veterans Administration. Note: The tool to check your stimulus payment only relates to the third economic impact payment, authorized in the American Rescue Plan signed in mid-March. If you have not received either of the first two payments, your only option is to file a 2020 tax return, even if you have no income to report. The tax return allows you to claim the first two stimulus payments, and also sets the wheels in motion to process your third payment.

If you “google” where’s my refund and are taken to a website that asks for additional information, such as your salary, mother’s maiden name, or any other personal information, you are in the wrong place; you may be giving your personal information to someone who is stealing your identity.

~ Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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